At 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, President Laura Chinchilla, flanked by Environment Minister René Castro and noted conservationist and billionaire owner of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson, signed a presidential decree that bans the practice of shark finning, as well as the importation and transportation of shark fins.
In a symbolic act, the event was held at the Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the nation’s most treasured protected areas.
“This government is making a grand investment in the strengthening and protection of marine resources, an investment of about $10-15 million for a new radar system that will cover 100 percent of our marine territory,” Chinchilla said to an audience that included the ministers of environment, agriculture and livestock and public security, as well as local school children.
Castro, who also signed the decree, noted, “This decree will allow us to stop the fishing of sharks in Costa Rican waters, which is intolerable for a country that defends its natural resources.”
“Our message,” added Chinchilla, “is that of zero tolerance for shark finning.”
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Newly appointed Waters and Oceans Vice Minister José Lino Chaves estimated that in Costa Rica up to 400,000 sharks were caught in 2011 with the intention of selling the fins.
Of the decree’s five articles, the first explicitly prohibits the practice of shark finning of any species in Costa Rican waters, as well as the dismemberment of fins from the body of the shark from the moment the shark is caught.
The second article bans the importation of shark fins from any other country unless in possession of a certificate that states the sharks were landed with the fins naturally attached.
The third article outlines new rules for the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca), stating that all sharks must be inspected upon landing, verifying that all fins correspond to the correct species of shark and that fins are attached naturally.
The fourth implements a strict zero-tolerance policy for any boats found transporting shark fins, which will result in the cancelation of the vessel’s fishing license.
The ban is the result of more than a decade of work by many of the country’s nonprofit conservation groups, including the Marine Turtle Restoration Project (Pretoma), MarViva Foundation and others.
One of those at the forefront of the fight to end shark finning in Costa Rican waters is Pretoma President Randall Arauz. Pretoma, a small conservation group with a budget of $300,000 annually, has worked tirelessly in the past decade to draw attention to the highly lucrative global shark fin trade.
Costa Rica has long battled political maleficence in controlling the international trade of shark fins, due in part to conflicts of interest within the nation’s primary marine resources agency, Incopesca.
“The problem with Incopesca,” said Arauz, “is that it is autonomous and politically led, not by a minister or elected official, but by a board of businessmen with ties in the fishing industry. Long liners and shark finners are on the board.”
In July, Chinchilla vowed to work towards improving the management of the country’s marine resources and signed a number of decrees that created the Waters and Oceans Vice Ministry and the National Marine Commission. Conservationists hope that the new decree puts to bed what Branson said had put a stain on Costa Rica’s environmental image.
“Now they’ve gotten rid of that stain,” Branson said on Wednesday. The British tycoon also stressed the importance of youth participation in conservation efforts.
“I think it is up to young people if they ever see any [environmental violations] happening to shout very loudly,” he said.
Branson also called on residents to help the effort by supplying boats and other resources.
On his blog, Branson wrote, “I saw the film ‘Sharkwater’ a few years ago and it shook me to the core. Here we were decimating 1.5 million sharks per week – all for a bowl of soup.”
The film Branson references, Sharkwater, is a 2006 documentary that follows Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society confronting shark poachers along the Pacific Coast of Guatemala and Costa Rica.
Costa Rica’s problem with shark finning received international attention when Watson was arrested in May in Germany on a warrant from Costa Rica over a high-seas incident in 2002. A Costa Rican fishing vessel accused Watson of attacking them (TT, May 18, 2012). Watson said the boat’s crew was shark finning.
Other attempts at shedding light on shark finning have generated negative publicity for a country that markets itself abroad as environmentally conscientious. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay allegedly was covered in gasoline and held at gunpoint when trying to film illegal finning activity in Puntarenas in 2011. Ramsay told the Daily Mail, “[Shark finning] is a multibillion-dollar industry, completely unregulated. We traced some of the biggest culprits to Costa Rica. These gangs operate from places like forts, with barbed-wire and gun towers.”
Since 2010, more than 15,000 kilograms of shark fins have entered Costa Rica. Many conservationists, such as Arauz, believe that China’s recent interest and investment in Costa Rica is not at all coincidental, and that in return for heavy investment in Costa Rican infrastructure Costa Rica remains lax on implementing those laws in place to prevent the practice. In China, a bowl of shark fin soup can fetch up to $150.
After signing the decree, Chinchilla noted that, “We have added additional measures to control the commercialization of shark fins in the country, joining the current fishing law we already have with the prohibition of the importation of shark fins.”
But even now as the decree has been signed and Costa Rica continues to impose laws against this lucrative trade, conservationists are concerned about the entrance of fins by land from Nicaragua. Arauz takes issue with the decree’s second article, which stipulates fins can be transported across the border with a certificate signed by Nicaraguan officials stating the sharks were landed with fins attached.
“I don’t know why we decided the Nicaraguan government has so much credibility. It’s a sign Costa Rica has sold out,” Arauz said.
Other skeptics wonder how the decree and other fishing laws will be enforced. “Do you trust the Costa Rican justice system to monitor the new decree faithfully?” one reporter asked Branson on Wednesday.
“All of the young people I have spoken to in Costa Rica have been outraged for a long time about the slaughter of the species in the oceans,” Branson responded. “I think the public of Costa Rica will monitor it for the government.”